Rookie of the Year Handicapping Preview
by Brett David Roberts (@33Trigger)
The New Orleans Pelicans won the Zion Sweepstakes.
By all accounts, this is the best thing that could have happened for a quick rebuild in the Bayou, but is Zion Williamson actually anything near “a lock” to win the Rookie of the Year award? NBA oddsmakers at Bookmaker nearly think so, setting the odds at -400 for Williamson to claim the hardware.
But there a lot of names being overlooked in this draft class. Moreover, Williamson is already ruled out for “weeks” with mere “knee soreness” that the Pelicans are being intentionally vague in revealing the nature of.
If Williamson is already showing the signs of wear and tear before the regular season tip-off, what does this mean to his award chances? Moreover, with no guidelines really, what is the minimum number of games Williamson will need to appear in to rule out suffering a snub like Joel Embiid did in his first NBA season (Many will recall Embiid was the best rookie two years ago but lost the award due to the fact he played less than half of the season).
While none of these questions necessarily have concrete answers, let us dig into the top contenders for the Rookie of the Year award, beginning with Zion, of course.
All odds are c/o Bookmaker
Zion Williamson (-400)
Zion Williamson is a one-and-done NCAA talent hailing from Duke University. In his one season in the NCAA, he showed he was a man among, well, young men. At 6’7” 285 pounds, Williamson would be expected to be slow and cumbersome. But he is neither of those things. Zion has a 40-plus inch vertical and the strength to power one down against any rim-protecting center. The question is, after that, how much can his joints withstand? Coming down from 40-plus inches onto the hardwood is going to erode the ankles and knees, and indeed, Williamson’s official reason for being listed injured going into the opening night is just “knee soreness.”
The Pelicans, of course, are hoping to rest Williamson and exercise the utmost caution with its top pick, but there is no hiding the fact entirely that Zion is ailing. It is a foreboding sign, and it is actually enough to scare away many bettors, and understandably so. It hardly matters “how good” Williamson is if his joints fail to hold up and keep him mostly cheering from the sidelines. It is not what anyone wants to see, but it also seems like a distinct possibility it could really be the eventual outcome for his immense talents.
Ja Morant (+250)
Ja Morant has drawn comparisons to Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway despite being four inches shorter. Watching Morant reveals the reason for the comparisons though: It has nothing to do with stature. Morant sees the court and is explosive in getting to his spots. He makes passes even third-party observers miss, and in the first round of the NCAA tournament, he put it all on display. Unfortunately, Morant and the Murray State Racers did lose in the Round of 32, but many were already on the verge of labeling the Racers the 2019 “Cinderella” story.
It requires more than one win for that, but Morant led a team that is not even a top-tier Division I program to a Conference title and a surprising win in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Unlike most rookie point guards, Morant will not start out behind a veteran— there will be no disguise of tutelage. The Grizzlies are ready to hand him the keys, and given his natural gifts, all of his teammates should relish the opportunity to play with him, and particularly so Jaren Jackson Jr., a guy expected to make a leap in his own right in his second NBA season. At +250, Morant is a nice value, and if the label “rookie point guard” does not sound too scary, he is the best value given Williamson’s shaky knees.
RJ Barrett (+700)
RJ Barrett will probably lead all rookies in scoring, but that also might not be enough. The New York Knicks have nothing resembling a No. 1 option, and if Barrett seizes the opportunity (to ball hog some) he could easily become that alpha the Knicks have nothing close to since bidding farewell to Kristaps Porzingis. New York will also be on of the worst five teams in the league, though, so Barrett could post 18 to 20 points per game (unlikely) and still lose this award if the Knicks are under 30 wins. It is tough to reward a rookie on a poor team while others (even the No. 1 pick, Williamson) are playing important roles for teams much closer to postseason contention than the Knicks are.
Darius Garland (+4500), Coby White (+4500), Michael Porter Jr (+4500), DeAndre Hunter (+4000), Jarrett Culver (+4000), Rui Hachimura (+5500), Cam Reddish (+6500), Tyler Herro (+1800)
Of these non-big-three, there are some solid options for dark horse candidates, but every one of these guys is just that: a total dark horse. Darius Garland shares the backcourt with another point guard (Collin Sexton) on possibly the worst team in the league in Cleveland. Coby White could be a great playmaker someday, but the Bulls will run its offense through Zach LaVine until he is ready. Michael Porter Jr probably will never have a season with more than 50 games played, so it is almost safe to write him off here.
Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro is intriguing at +1800, and he has drawn in-house comparisons to Klay Thompson. The thing is, the Heat are hardly the Golden State Warriors, and there is no system intact to promote Herro’s talents—even if he is as good as Thompson. So while there is little doubt he has a great career, the Heat might not be ready to showcase his shooting ability quite yet. Not fully anyway.
None of these dark horse candidates will be big enough in Year One to contend for the award. Every one of them has sufficient talent, but perhaps only Herro and Rui Hachimura get enough playing time to really show it this year. They are the two best values of the “also-rans” but still probably also-rans, because the top-end talent in the 2019 draft class is separated by several levels from the lower picks in the lottery portion of the draft.
While all of these guys could eventually blossom into superstars, the situations for most of them are not favorable to propel them into high-usage roles quite yet. Herro might be much more likely to win the three-point contest during All-Star weekend, but that is another topic for another day (in February!).